Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Golf Course War Machine- No Boundries Theatre, Cardiff

"Wales? I thought that was a town in England"

Raise your hand if you're from Wales and an American has said that to you...

One of Chris Harris' spot on observations about being Welsh, and the world and Welsh in the world in 'Golf Course War Machine'. The play follows Pippa, a 24-year-old from Tredegar staging a one woman protest on a roundabout in Newport.

It's 2014 and the eyes of the world are on that roundabout, or at least just up the road from it, as the NATO summit is in Wales, and the leaders of the free world are assembled in the Celtic Manor hotel. 

Pippa starts to tell her story. She may be hungover, slightly relying on Wikipedia and waiting for the rest of the protest to join her, but she's not going to let the opportunity to make her voice heard and put Wales on the map. So waving a Welsh flag at Obama's helicopter will be her Tiananmen Square.
Harris expertly weaves his political commentary expertly with storytelling that reveals slowly the events that brought Pippa to this point. From her Mother’s questionable Boyfriend choices, being ‘the first’ to do A Levels, and a sense of wondering where she belongs in the world.

Harris touches on ideas of Welsh identity and Welsh working class experiences. As Pippa describes the streets she walks to get home, a vivid picture of the look and feel of the Valleys and the people who live in them. Pippa is someone tied to her community, but also longing to escape, to be something different. She feels different, but also as if she is nothing special. In being ‘the first’ to get A Levels she’s told she’s something special, but looking out at the world feels anything but. Pippa goes out into the world and feels unique, something different and loves that feeling of specialness she finds elsewhere. And yet she still finds herself back home. Looking to escape perhaps, looking to define herself but not yet finding her way. There is a constant battle at work, something familiar to many young people- being a part of where you’re from, feeling a part of the place that made you, and a longing to break free. For Pippa, the moment NATO descends feels momentous, a point at which the larger world collides with her own, and a chance to make her mark. And this creates a great analogy in Harris’ skilfully woven narrative, the places that make you, and how to make your mark on the wider world.

It’s a big ask of an actor and Melanie Stevens rises to the challenge expertly. A natural storyteller, she weaves the tale of Pippa from Tradegar to China and back again, she also brings to life with ease a plethora of characters who are all individual and yet people we all know- our Welsh Mothers, the dependable friend, the slightly bad influence friend and the boyfriend who breaks a heart. These are brought to life by Stevens while never losing focus on Pippa’s story. She also works the intimate space expertly, locking eyes with audience members, conveying the intensity and urgency of Pippa’s narrative. She also directs the audience fearlessly, from addressing individuals, telling the story personally to them, to getting the entire audience to hold hands or close their eyes. Stevens offers a funny and engaging performance from a skilled and talented actor.

It's an odd thing when the eyes of the world are suddenly on your corner of it. In 2014 for a moment the whole world knew where Wales was and it felt like a moment to have something to say. Watching Chris Harris' politically charged and identity charged piece as voters in America go to the polls in the most important election in living memory, this feels even more pertinent. The idea of standing up, for what you believe in, for yourself, for your country, being a fitting sentiment for yet another moment of political change.

Golf Course War Machine is a skilfully written and performed piece of theatre, that is as fitting and political a work in 2016 as its 2014 setting. Performed in the intimate setting of AJ’s coffee shop, No Boundaries Theatre are giving a voice to new talent and strong ideas. They are a company to wathc in Cardiff and beyond. 

No Boundries Theatre can be found on Facebook and Twitter @noboundariescdf
ClockTower Theatre Co continues their season with Secured by Tobais Weatherburn in December.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

City of the Unexpected (A Choir-eye-view)

As a member of Sororitas choir, based in Cardiff, I along with many other choirs across the city and beyond were invited to take part in a ‘Mass Choir’ as part of the City of the Unexpected. So after learning the songs (two newly written pieces and some medleys) and one slightly mad rehearsal with everyone, we were being set loosen the city of Cardiff along with the other performers.

The point of the event, as organisers kept insisting was the ‘unexpected’ but as choir performers we were kept at the castle (not unlike the prisoner Mr Fox) and missed out much of the early action. So mainly relying on rumour and, well Twitter, we discovered the peach had indeed landed and was heading in our direction. Eventually we heard it (who knew a peach would be so loud?) accompanied by a marching band and a band of protesters, we spotted the giant fruit heading our way.

The peach slowly arrived and was tethered to the front of the Castle, presumably to stop it escaping and causing more havoc…Accompanying it were protesters who demanded that we ‘Save the Peach’ and although we weren’t originally part of that group, the choirs couldn’t help but join in the rousing cry to ‘Save the Peach’. The protest crowd was made up of children and their adults, showing, much as Dahl would have wanted, kid power really works! Some brilliant signs accompanied the Peach such as ‘Make Fuzz not War’ and ‘Peach Peace’, so after an impromptu Peach Rally (choirs really do like to ‘join in’ we settled in to welcome the peach). The Peach was then formally welcomed by the Lord Mayor.
While the peach was being welcomed we were slightly distracted by Mr Fox and his family who seemed to be using the ramparts as a bit of a playground! Some acrobatic moves as Mrs Fox and Mr Fox ducked in and out of the castle, presumably while hiding from some angry farmers.  From our spot on the grass in front of the castle the choirs had a fantastic (pardon the pun) up close view of the acrobatics!

Meanwhile things were happening with the Peach, noises seemed to be coming out of it and the Fire Brigade sprang into action, quickly lifting what looked like a young boy from inside the peach. While the Chief of Fire services got to work rescuing those inside, it was time for the choir to do what we came to do. Singing a medley of Welsh classics to welcome the visitors from the peach. This is the kind of thing choirs live for, the chance to sing with about 500 other Welsh choristers, in front of Cardiff Castle, singing Welsh songs? That was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and one we’re all thankful to Dahl for giving us! The crowd joined in with the songs as various animals- Ladybird, Grasshopper and Spider-were also winched from the peach. Ending with a rousing version of Catatonia’s International Velvet the creatures were formally welcomed to the City! They thanked the crowd and were on their way to the next adventure.

Meanwhile Mr Fox and family had been waiting for an opportunity. With some more flagpole acrobatics, things seemed to be building towards some sort of big climax…however this moment ended in disappointment, as Mr Fox was unable to escape across the tightrope between the Castle and Queen Street due to crowds’ bellow. Despite the organisers’ best efforts, the crowd couldn’t be persuaded to move, and so the big centrepiece of the day ended on a slight note of disappointment.
There has been a variety of comments on social media about crowds/crowd control and organisation at the event. And while it’s fair to say the ‘main events’ at the castle were very crowded, it was to be expected at such an event. Being a ‘part of the action’, I can say that yes there was an element of disorganisation felt at times, but given the scale of things, that isn’t surprising. All day however I was always in sight of several security and event staff at all times who did their best to help out. I didn’t use the App that signalled where things were, but I found that simply wandering around the city you found events popping up everywhere. And actually these smaller surprise events were sometimes far more rewarding to watch than the ‘main attraction’. It was frustrating that people as a group took out their frustration on one another, pushing and shoving and creating more of an issue in the crowds, rather than trying to cooperate and help one another, and the event run smoothly. So on that note, I feel sad that the crowds, not the organisation meant that Mr Fox didn’t complete his stunt as planned.

 However, as was the spirit of the event, those who later were wandering by the castle were rewarded with an unexpected Mr Fox tightrope walk later in the afternoon-and pretty impressive he was too!
While smaller ‘happenings’ took place all over the City Centre, including an impressive Digger Ballet, where Mr and Mrs Fox insinuated something a bit less child-friendly through their ‘digger dance’ to ‘Why Don’t We Do it in the Road’-not sure Paul McCartney ever saw two human sized foxes driving diggers to that song, but stranger things were happening all over town at that point. Mr Fox, seeming to get about a bit, was ballroom dancing in the museum, playing the Organ in St John’s Church and playing the violin in Castle Arcade. When Mr Fox wasn’t drawing crowds George and his marvellous medicine machine and some interesting Polar Explorers were also out and about. Eventually the city quietened down briefly and we could all draw breath before the evening performance.

The evening performance was both lavish and surreal. Taking place at City hall it was a celebration of the marriage between the Ladybird, and her rescuer from earlier that day, the Chief of Fire Services. The choir’s part in this was to sing to the newlyweds a medley of love songs, so we weren’t needed for the first half, and as a result were hidden out of sight at the side of City Hall. As with much of the choir’s waiting points, this proved a sneaky advantage in getting a clear and alternative view of the proceedings.

Just before that however, a few of us had our own ‘unexpected’ discovery, which showed, I think that the real magic wasn’t in the big crowds or events, but what you stumbled across. Having just got excited at finding where the vintage cars were ‘sleeping’ between performances, and having admired the vintage Morris Minor, two of us choir members stumbled on a Giant Peach floating quietly on its own behind City Hall! With hardly anyone around it was really magical to have a quiet moment and admire the truly impressive piece of set that had been created.

City Hall was decorated lavishly as a wedding venue, with the Bridal party on the roof, while dancers, orchestra and now choir gathered beneath. Singing our way through love classics ‘Love is in the Air’ ‘All You Need is Love’ ‘When a Man Loves a Woman’ and ‘Do You Love Me’ all with accompanying dance moves, confetti and paper hearts, again got the crowd singing along. And then we all turned and watched a Ladybird marry a fireman, accompanied by rock guitar solos on the rooftop, flanked by ballerinas. Finishing the romantic moment was singer Sophie Evans hoisted up on a platform singing ‘What a Wonderful World’ (which hopefully wasn’t drowned out by the snow machine for the rest of the audience as it was for us!).

The wedding party then departed and something strange started to happen to City Hall, video projections and sound scaping began to leap around, and the building was covered in chocolate and sweets in all manner of configurations. A display that Willy Wonka would be proud of, and one of the most visually impressive moments of the day. 

As the choir then left, and a few of us made our way back away from the action, one of the most truly magical moments of the day happened, on an entirely deserted Lloyd George Avenue, a Giant Peach with James himself suspended from it floated towards us. On a street with only two of us seeing him float, practice his moves and drift off towards his entrance was truly unexpected and a perfect end to the day. We might have missed the finale and fireworks, but being a part of the City of the Unexpected gave us a really magical moment to end the day. 

Friday, 2 September 2016

Groundhog Day-The Old Vic

If this was my actual Groundhog Day I'd happily spend hundreds of days there. The new musical from Tim Minchin manages to be both utterly uplifting as well as emotionally affecting.

For those who missed the 1993 film starring Bill Murray, it follows cynical weatherman Phil Connors, who is sent to report on 'Groundhog Day' which is, yes a real thing where folklore says that if a Groundhog comes out and sees his shadow on February 2nd there will be 6 more weeks of winter. Oh and for anyone wondering what exactly a Groundhog is, this is what one looks like: 

It's a large Marmot, a relation of the squirrel. Also known as a Woodchuck. 

Now we're all up to speed on our small mammals and folklore...in the film Phil begrudgingly reports on the Groundhog happenings, only to find himself stuck waking up on Groundhog Day seemingly forever. 

Trapped in a small town purgatory, Phil is angry, then elated, then suicidal until he finally as he says 'gets it' and starts trying to put things right in his small corner of the world. And in the process finds himself falling for, and working hard to make himself appealing to fellow journalist Rita. As a story it's both a redemption tale and a homage to small town life. The deceptively simple premise is ultimately incredibly moving and heart-warming. And in using original screenwriter Danny Rubin to write the book gives a slightly updated and also pitch perfect stage version of his film. Teaming up with Tim Minchin, known for both his own music and comedy and the incredibly successful adaptation of Matlida, gives the book a beautiful, witty and fitting score. Standouts from Minchin are the second act opener 'Being Nancy' and the beautiful 'Seeing You'. The score veers from high energy ensemble numbers filled with witty lines (Phil's interjection about masturbating in a bath is a memorable one) as well as romantic and affecting lyrics. 

Alongside a brilliantly written piece is direction and staging that really elevates this production to the next level. Matthew Warchus' direction combined with Peter Darling's choreography against the backdrop of Paul Kieve's sets create the world of Punxsutawney Pensylvania perfectly. The sets that Kieve creates are beautiful and ingenious. A backdrop of identical houses giving the sense of anywhereville USA, combined with the doll's house fold out motel room that Phil wakes in every day. Intricate and deceptively simple these sets combined with exacting choreography build the town around Phil and give it a real sense of identity. Brilliant also are the visual illusions when in fast paced numbers Phil reappears in his bed the next morning for another Groundhog Day as if by magic. On a personal nerdy note, I was also utterly fascinated by the costume changes and working out just how many suits, coats and scarves Karl was working with. 

The whole show is held together by Andy Karl as Phil. The experienced Broadway actor takes on both the challenge of Bill Murray's classic performance, and a potentially unlikeable leading character, and makes it his own, and make Phil a character you want to be better. And when he does, it's Karl's performance that makes it all the more rewarding for an audience. Charming, and engaging as an actor he's also an exceptional musical theatre performer, not just in voice but in telling story through song. It is Karl's performance as much as the clever writing and staging that really makes this a stand out musical. 

The ensemble that make up the town are brought to life by a talented team, with funny and sweet characters making up the backdrop to Phil’s (mis)adventures. And like Phil many audience members start by thinking it is a fate worse than hell to be stuck with these people, but by the end be completely won over by the mish-mash of slightly misfit townsfolk. Coupled with this the lovely love story of Phil and Rita (Played by Carlyss Peer), simple sweet and charming and utterly heart-warming but also feeling very real.

It is overall a magical and moving piece of musical theatre. Movie adaptations run the risk of being a 'by numbers' arrangement. Groundhog Day feels like something new, which is perhaps the greatest irony-and greatest strength. 

I left Groundhog Day feeling incredibly moved, but also elated. Much like Phil ends his time in Punxsutawney I imagine. Yes, it’s a simple enough morality tale, a tale about changing yourself to change your life. And maybe yes a lot of us, me included need to learn that lesson, and it makes for emotional viewing. But Groundhog Day is also so uplifting and so frankly joyous at times that it leaves an audience with a real sense of elation. New musical gems are hard to find, but I’d happily live this one over and over for some time to come.

Groundhog Day is at The Old Vic until until 17 September. Box office: 0844-871 7628.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

No Man's Land- Cardiff

Pinter plays can be a frustrating experience, the infamous pauses, the obtuse writing, it can be a fascinating evening but also a frustrating one if executed poorly. Of course there was no real fear of poor execution from two masters of the stage in Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. Their double act, supported by fine work from Owen Teale and Damien Molony lifts this more obscure Pinter into something accessible and enjoyable for even the most Pinter-wary. 

It is an atmospheric production, with projections of trees reaching beyond the imposing living room set, and a soundscape of birdsong. Stephen Brimson Lewis through his set design gives an imposing presence to the house that Patrick Stewart's Hirst inhabits. With high walled rooms and huge windows that are left curtained for much of the time, to the wing backed armchairs and hard wooden seats, Hirst's world is drawn around him. The costumes too, also by Brimson Lewis, serve to create this particular slice of the world. Stewart clad in sharp pinstripe suits in contrast to McKellan's Spooner, whose baggy suit has seen better days, his flat cap and tennis shoes likewise. Meanwhile Foster (Molony) and Briggs (Teale) sport a fetching line in extreme 70s suits. And with their outfits a particular corner of England is created. 

The costuming lends itself to the theme of nostalgia, the harking back to something now missing for both characters, for different reasons. Combining nostalgia with Cricket-both main characters are named for famous cricketers-ties with Pinter's own feelings linking cricket to a time now lost. And this is something both characters are searching for, as is the younger Foster, who years for his earlier youth spent travelling in Asia, showing nostalgia is not only the preserve of the older generation. There is a wistfulness about the play, and the liminal space it seems to occupy between night and day seems to add to this. 

The performances are, as you would expect, a masterclass of acting and stagecraft. While inhabiting their own roles pitch perfectly, there is another level to this performance brought by the relationship between McKellan and Stewart. Playing off one another perfectly, and with performances so in sync the work could have been written for them, there is also a sense of real joy in the work that seems to undercut their performances. Individually they bring fascinating performances, McKellan's Spooner is a loquacious and laconic poet, with a real air of vulnerability and confusion as he attempts to settle into his companion's home. Stewart's Hirst hides a different vulnerability behind a harder shell, and he is somewhat darker, harder to read. Together they have some joyously funny and touching moments in which both their skills as actors, and their relationship as actors (and friends) lifts to another level. It would be easy for Teale and Molony to be lost next to these two acting greats, but each holds their own and makes as strong an impression as the leading pair. An amusing and intriguing pair of sidekicks to Hirst, much is left unknown about the two employees who are brought to life with both comic timing and unanswered questions about where exactly they fit in.

There are no answers, as you'd expect from Pinter. Instead we're left with various questions: What is actually going on? what does the audience think is going on? what do the character’s think is going on? what does the playwright think is going on? ultimately it doesn't matter if these match up, what matters is asking these questions. In the case of this performance, having reached them through a masterclass of stagecraft. 

No Man's Land is at the New Theatre Cardiff until Saturday 3rd September: http://www.newtheatrecardiff.co.uk/what's-on/no-man's-land/

And on tour nationally details here: http://www.nomanslandtheplay.com/

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The Entertainer- Garrick Theatre London

*Disclaimer, I saw this while it was still in previews so this review comes with the caveat that it was not the offcial finished product.

The Brannagh season at the Garrick comes to a close in style with John Osbourne's classic 'The Entertainer'. When curating the season it seems a fitting finale for Kenneth Brannagh, who takes on the fading song and dance man Archie Rice.

Osborne's play is a dual reflection on the demise of the Music Hall and the demise of Empire, with the Suez crisis as a backdrop to the ailing career of Rice. It is on one hand a fascinating insight, and look back, on the other elements of it don't quite hit the right notes any more.

Osborne's men in general, where once rang fresh and new, sometimes feel hollow, self involved and of their time and misogynistic. This is no reason to stop reviving these plays, they are still important works with much to think about, even if with time the things we think of when watching Osborne shift from the anger of the angry young (and older in this case) men, to also as an audience passing our judgement on these men, and their rage. The Entertainer is a fascinating reflection back on a moment in entertainment history and political history.

Brannagh himself is as masterful and charming as you're expect. However his Archie is at once too talented-Brannagh's own tap dancing is exact and with flair-and also a little too 'dead behind the eyes'. The latter is clearly a choice, his Archie goes through the motions, unenthused and ticking boxes. This jars with the dialogue and Osborne's crafting of the character- nobody would go on that long, and fight that hard if there wasn't still a sliver of love there somewhere. However the Music Hall routines are entertaining, pitch perfect in their hark back to that era. Brannagh is, as a dancer exacting, his singing channelling the era, his jokes likewise and delivered with panache. One odd element, with the hair, the makeup and the accent he uses Brannagh seems to also channel Eddie Izzard in look and demeanour, which while might not be what Osborne ever imagined works incredibly well.

The transitions from the Music Hall to the domestic in this production are sometimes awkward, director Rob Ashford seeming unsure how to move between or meld the worlds. In these scenes we meet the rest of the Rice family, although the writing is such that for the first half the unobservant audience member (as I was in this weekend's London heat) might miss the key details of the family relationships.

Among the Rice family Gawn Grainger-a later addition to the cast due to John Hurt needing to step down-is a standout as the angry patiriarch Billy Rice. His rants about Poles and male Ballet Dancers ring as familiar today from those of certain demographics. His anger and passion for both the Empire and a time already lost, cuts through the supposed anger of the younger generation. With Sophie McShera's Jean Rice painted as passionate and principled but coming over a little one note and reserved. Greta Scacchi as Archie's second wife Phoebe brings the most nuanced and passionate performance. A real sense of her frustration at the way her life has turned out, and the conflicting love for Archie and her hatred for the things he puts her through is conveyed.

Somewhere the link between Empire and Music Hall feels a little lost. Whether it's through this production that struggles at times to bring together the home and stage world, or whether it's simply the passing of time and the dating of the play that loses this element is unclear. However the strong political themes you feel are running under the narrative, never quite leap to the fore as they perhaps should. However it is a solid engaging production of a classic and still important play.

If you end up sitting next to a member of the older generation they may tell you tales of Olivier being masterful in the role in the 60s. Others may also remember Robert Lindsay's turn as Archie at the Old Vic more recently. Both were masters of their craft and their takes were no doubt equally masterful. Brannagh likewise delivers, just as you might expect him to, and it's a fitting curtain call for his own season at the Garrick.

box office 0844 482 9673 http://www.branaghtheatre.com to 12 nov
In cinemas nationwide 27 Oct

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Never going to be good enough...on 'artists' and being terribly lowbrow.

I've come to the realisation I'm just not...something. You see all the words I want to use to fill in that sentence feel insulting, wrong. I could say 'clever' but clever is relative. I could say 'artistic' or 'high brow' they seem more fitting. But it still feels insulting. What it boils down to in both trying to be a part of the arts and academia is I'm not what people consider 'high brow' enough. I'm a little bit common, a little bit...is this what the cool kids mean by 'basic'? Do the cool kids even say 'basic' anymore?

See this is my problem. I don't like the cool stuff. I don't like the sophisticated stuff. I don't like the artsy stuff that we're supposed to revere.

This becomes a problem when trying to be a part of anything artistic, but also something I encountered in academia as well. You're not an allowed to be a writer/artist of any kind of you don't like the 'right' stuff and you're also not considered intellectual enough either.

To which, I say:

And promptly betrway my lowbrow sensablities.

The longer version starts with: but why is anything we get either enjoyment or inspiration from so very wrong?

And let me float an idea: what you like influences you if you want to write, create your own artistic work in any way (and I mean ANY way if you want to make flower collages for your home or write erotic Supernatural fan fiction you are still being artistic-I'll come back to that) or even just to be valued as a person, what you like isn't a measure of your intellectual or artistic worth, it's a marker of what you like or don't like. It's that simple.

In theatre there's a high degree of snobbery. This isn't news. The people who go to see Mama Mia are looked down on as inferior to the people who go to the Royal Court. But hold on, firstly why can't they go to both? and newsflash people do! And also, frankly Mama Mia has made a lot more people have a damn good night out. And there's nothing wrong with that.

I'm all for the power of art/theatre to change, to protest, to raise issues. I wrote a PhD on theatre and AIDS for goodness sake! And that's not meant as a 'highbrow' or superior brag. I wrote that (damn hard won) PhD because I was and am fiercely passionate about the role theatre and performance had to give voice to people with AIDS, particularly in the early days of the epidemic. I am passionate about how writers, performers used their voice and 'art' to make people listen and fight for change.

But often that isn't enough either. You ask me what to me is the most significant piece of theatre to me, and it will depending on the day you ask me either be Angels in America or Rent. If you're asking me what has shaped my brain, my thoughts on performance, on theatre, the answer is Angels in America. If you ask me what the most emotional, visceral experience in a theatre I have had, it's Rent, hands down.

But that's a) not the answer people want b) the whole story. Those reactions, emotions are product of a 1000 different factors. I found Rent at the right age and the right time, the stars aligned and in terms of emotional memory it's doubtful anything will eclipse that. Angels similarly in an intellectual way, captured my mind at the right moment and spurred me onto something. Both are, if you're pushing me for an artistic dramatic response, etched into my mind and soul. Does it make them faultless works of art? the best theatre ever created? No. I have literally 1000s of words on why they aren't. But they are mine, and they are part of me.

And we can't assume because someone says they don't like x or y supposedly high brow or intellectual thing that they don't understand it, or that they aren't somehow sophisticaed enough. That in itself is an ignorant and snobbish judgement.

And why do we elevate some things as more 'worthy' than others? why are we suddenly better,cleverer people if we chose to spend our time at the angry one woman show, rather than taking in a West End musical? And why are artists 'better' if they make something dark and obtuse that people struggle to understand, rather than something that people can access and enjoy. Shrek the Musical has some excellent life lessons contained in it but of course nobody wants to admit that they'd have a better time there. Don't get me wrong I LOVE the frisson, the intellectual stimulation and the nagging thoughts that follow a really good piece of drama. But I also enjoy being entertained. There's room for both in cultural consumption, so there's room for both in cultural production.

This does extend beyond theatre, I experienced much of it in teaching English Literature, having not had an undergraduate degree in the subject I missed reading most of the 'Canon' as a young adult (partly due to being a History undergrad, so I was busy learning about Wars and Sparrows in China). And although my colleagues couldn't recite the names of key historians and rate their relative worth, I was the ignorant one. As I say it's all relative. Now firstly it's not a revelation that I'm not high brow enough for academia. For a start I genuinely considered re-titling my PhD 'Fuck Foucault, a reflection on why theory isn't the answer to everything'.

But it goes beyond English Literature and Theatre, people are notoriously snobby about what you do or don't like (as a test, be that person who says 'I don't watch Game of Thrones' and see the reaction). Now sometimes people are saying they don't like a thing to be edgy or different. Sometimes they tried it and simply don't like it, sometimes they just haven't gotten around to it yet. But for every Game of Thones they aren't watching there's 10 things that 'everyone' isn't watching that they're passionate about.

And it's those things they're passionate about that will fuel them. Whether in academic, social or artistic pursuits. And they'll be responding to the world, and they things they love in an honest way. There is no point in me for example trying to become the next writer of Game of Thrones because I don't particularly enjoy it, it's not my style, it's not my genre. However if someone wants a spin off from The Good Wife, or if the Supernatural writers want some new demons creating, then I'm your girl. Or you know if Chris Carter wants to give The X Files to someone who actually gets his characters and will do them justice...ahem. Sorry I digress.

All of which brings me to a secondary point. I already write. I already create. I have since I was a kid, I have seriously since my late teens when I (brace yourselves) started writing fanfiction. I still get to call myself an artist. I still get to call myself a creator. And so do all of you out there who make anything for whatever reasons. My fellow fangirls and fanboys who make fan art, who write fanfiction, who make videos. You are all artists. Those of you who make webcomics, or YouTube videos you're artists. If you sing, you dance. You're artists. If you make crafts, draw paint. If you do it for your friends, fellow fans, your family or just for you. If you create you are an artist. Nobody, and I mean nobody gets to tell you that you aren't or to place some hypothetical sliding scale of judgement on whether you're creating 'real' art. Create what you love, for whoever you damn well like.

Basically (and brace yourselves, low brow cultural reference a-coming) think like Elle Woods. The artistic types of the world, the intellectual types of the world may be saying you're just a dumb blonde in  a ridiculous outfit....

But that doesn't mean you aren't good enough. If Elle Woods taught us anything, it's do it your way. And one day may we all meet our Warners and say:

What I'm really saying is that cultural is a broad specturm, art is a broad specturm. And we don't fit into neat little boxes as consumers, so why should we pretend otherwise? and why should we try and perpetuate the idea that the only worthy things, the only 'real' art is some dark obtuse piece of work that nobody but the creator really understands?

And how, where and why you create work also isn't a marker of who you are as a creator. If your family likes your collages, or a small following of fanfic readers LOVES your Wincest fic, you're making something people enjoy. And that that counts. If you enjoy it, that counts. To quote another musical:

"I'd rather be nine people's favourite thing than 100 people's ninth favourite thing"

Friday, 22 July 2016

Romeo and Juliet-Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival

Romeo and Juliet is one of Shakespeare's best known plays, and particularly for those of us who were teenagers in the 90s a certain film version is more than etched into our minds as well. Personally speaking as well this was, by pure accident rather than design, the third Romeo and Juliet I'd seen in a month. 
All images Keith Stanbury  

Within minutes any fears of this being a 'by the numbers' version of the play were quickly dispelled. Co-directors Mark Modzelwski and Jack Paterson have created an innovative approach to the play. It's a dark, production that brings out the more disturbing streaks often glossed over for the easier romantic elements of the play. 'Easy' also isn't something you would use to describe the production-the audience is asked to work as well by challenging them to engage with an alternative look at the text. 

The elements are all there, the warring families, the glamourous moments, the fights, and of course the lovers. But it's a world that might not be exactly what the audience expects. Quickly breaking down expectations and flipping them on their head with some seamless ensemble work in the introductory moments, it becomes clear that elements of the story may not be as we expect or as they seem. 

Although the leading roles are uniformly excellent, it is this ensemble work which is the highlight of the production. From the choreographed gang rivalry of the opening moments which brought to mind a kind of post-modernist reference to West Side Story's adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, layered back into the original, to the constant presence and reactions of the ensemble which fleshed out the play and breathed new life into scenes that sometimes pass as filler. 

It's clear the directors worked with the actors as a company, rather than focusing on just their leading parts, and everyone had a vital part to play in every scene. From the Nurse or Lord and Lady Capulet being unseen observers, to Balthasar becoming a mysterious sometimes seen, sometimes unseen figure in scenes all added to a sense of mystery and newness around this well-worn play. 

The mixing up of characters-and gender roles- was also a welcome addition. So with Tybalt becoming a woman (and a hell of a feisty one at that played by the talented Asha Cecil) and Benvolio becoming two people (Ben and Volio, Stephanie Smith and Edward Kettle) and the previously mentioned Balthasar played by an eerily hypnotic Carys McQueen who really lent emotional weight to the all-seeing role. Across the play the ensemble adds to the narrative, engaging with the story, enhancing the storytelling and bringing a new energy to the play. 

The principle roles really feed off this sense of a company and their performances are enhanced by it. Mikey Howe as a confident but likeable Romeo gives a contemporary feel and likeable air to Romeo. Often reduced to just his love-lorn laments Howe draws out the fun, young Romeo who seems like the kind of guys you'd want to be around, and yes quite probably fall in love with. Helen Randall is a gentle but engaging Juliet, again giving her young girl a real sense of personality- some lovely exchanges with the nurse and her parents bring out the other sides of her character. And together their chemistry is excellent, and gives a real sense of young love's energy. 

The story may be well-worn and familiar but there is a frisson of new energy to this production. There is always a balance to be struck in staging Shakespeare, many audiences balk at the idea of innovation preferring the traditional route. And traditional often works, and certainly has its time and place, but there is something to be said for taking the leap into the unknown. In staging this different approach to the classics it feels like Everyman is respecting the intelligence of its audiences, challenging them to come along with the fantastic company and try something new. This darker twist with its many additions and spins on the ‘original’ might not be what everyone is expecting, or to everyone’s taste, but certainly nobody can fault the directors and the company for daring to give them something new.

And what about me? My three runs of Romeo and Juliet were bookended by two very innovative productions. The middle one was the current London production directed by Kenneth Brannagh. And as much fun as that was, I’d much rather see this (or anything else come to that) by Modzelewski and Paterson.

Romeo and Juliet runs until 30th Jule

Friday, 8 July 2016

'Allo 'Allo - Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival

All photos Simon West

Last night saw the second show in Cardiff Open Air theatre, classic comedy 'Allo 'Allo. Now if nothing else, I think we can all agree we need a good laugh right now, and the company don't disappoint on that front.

Staging classic sitcom 'Allo 'Allo on stage has elements of both blessing and curse for any actors. On the plus side, you know the material is already a hit, on the negative, it's already been a hit on television and that can be a tough act to follow. The cast rise to that challenge admirably, and the audience respond warmly to familiar characters and catchphrases while the cast breathes new life into familiar characters.

For those unfamiliar, 'Allo 'Allo was a BBC sitcom which ran between 1982-1992. Set in World War Two in a small town in occupied France where Rene Artois runs a cafe. When not running a cafe he is in turn helping the resistance, hiding clueless British airmen, helping hide stolen artworks and generally being involved in multiple double-crossing shenanigans at once. Oh and conducting simultaneous affairs with both his serving girls. Meanwhile Gestapo officer Herr Flick is conspiring to steal artworks from fellow German officers, Colonel Kurt von Strohmand Captain Hans Geering are conspiring to steal the valuable artworks as well, Michelle DuBois is running the French resistance through the cafe and British spy officer Crabtree is doing his best to help by posing as a French policeman. So far, so chaotic.

The play focuses on two main stories, each revolving around the running gag in the series about a stolen Van Klomp painting, proper title 'The Fallen Madonna' but a running joke in the series referred to it as 'The fallen Madonna with the big boobies'. In the first half the Germans are trying to claim the painting back, Herr Flick is trying to steal the painting and Rene is of course trying to keep it for himself. The only logical response? Hide it in some German sausage of course! The second act revolves around a visit from the Fuhrer, who of course also wants the painting of the Madonna (with the big boobies). So to stop the Fuhrer from getting the painting everyone schemes to get it for themselves…by dressing as the Fuhrer. How many Hitler’s does it take to steal a painting? That would be telling…

It’s a fast paced piece the requires the cast to be one step ahead at all times, and they respond brilliantly. Expert comic timing is displayed across the board, as it some excellent physical comedy-notably from David O’Rourke as Herr Flick, who maintains the stoic deadpan exterior of the Gestapo officer while executing some brilliant moments of physical comedy. His counterpart Helga Geerhard (Helen Flannagan) has some brilliantly executed set pieces that compliment her witty performance with some outlandish and brilliantly funny visual comedy, and as a duo they work seamlessly.
It’s a challenge taking on such well known characters but everyone rises to the occasion with enthusiasm and confidence. Paul Williams as Rene has the bigger challenge of holding the piece together as narrator, which he does with confidence and charm. He is warm and funny and while there is the hint of Gordon Kaye’s television performance, it’s also Williams’ own.

The whole cast manage to balance their television counterparts with their own interpretation. Standout cast members were Richard Thomas as Captain Bertorelli and Osian Llewellyn Edwards as Lieutenant Gruber. Thomas is outlandish as the Italian General with many medals (one for fixing Fiats) who becomes unwittingly embroiled in the German scheming. Thomas veers on the right side of pantomime caricature, delivering the big performance needed from a man wearing a hat that looks like a dead chicken, but also keeping Bertorelli feeling like a real character and a charming likeable if ridiculous man. Edwards has much to play with taking on Gruber, the hapless Lieutenant who Rene fears has a bit of a thing for him. Camping it up in the first half in unintentional flirtations with Rene, and discovering the police in compromising positions lets Edwards play up to this role, and he highly entertaining to watch even in the background of the café scenes. It is also a lovely touch that the theme song at the end is sung by Edwards-transformed momentarily from camp German officer to charming 1940s crooner!

The audience adored ‘Allo ‘Allo, and it was clear from the laughs of anticipation that many of them already loved the television series. Loved catchphrases were greeted with enthusiasm and loved characters enthusiastically welcomed on stage. And there is something wonderfully charming about an audience getting to revisit something they love in a new incarnation. Even for those unfamiliar with the television series (which I must confess to!) there is much to enjoy, and for those of us unfamiliar actually the little bonus of discovering these brilliant characters for the first time with this brilliant cast. But remember afterwards to slip away....like a phantom into the night...

Friday, 24 June 2016

Into the Woods- Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival

Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival opened in style with Sondheim's classic Into the Woods last night. It is a visually spectacular production which makes brilliant use of the fittingly wood-filled backdrop. And the large and impressive cast taking on one of musical theatre's most challenging scores. 

Into the Woods is Sondheim's twist on fairy tales. From Cinderella to Red Riding Hood to Jack and the Beanstalk, these stories are mixed together and mixed up from the familiar Disney versions. The first act is familiar, the Baker and his wife, on a quest from a mysterious witch, are seeking things that only familiar fairytale characters can give. They need a cow as white as snow, a coat as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper of gold. This leads them to cross paths with Jack, Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and Cinderella. In the process Jack ends up with his magic beans...something that never ends well as we all know. For the first act it does all end well. The witch's curse is broken, Cinderella gets her Prince and after their journey into the woods, everyone is happy...for a moment. Things unravel in Act 2 when the consequences of everyone actions are felt. 

Sondheim's work is always a challenge and musical director Rob Throne jnr has done an amazing job with both orchestra and performers. It's a difficult score accompanied by some of Sondheim's most tongue twisting lyrics, but the cast rises to the challenge beautifully. Meredith Lewis as Cinderella and Jo Herco-Thomas as The Witch both give some beautiful vocal performances. 

Director Richard Tunley does an impressive job at directing what is potentially an unwieldy piece of musical theatre. With so many characters and so much action it could potentially be a messy production, but there is a clarity and consistency to Tunley's staging that makes the story lines clear and the characters leap to life. 

The large cast also does an excellent job of weaving this difficult story consistently. All of the actors deliver memorable engaging and emotional performances. From the endearing Baker and his wife (Matthew Preece and Laura Phillips) who are the emotional centre of the story, and utterly believable and entertaining as this struggling couple. To the charming (pardon the pun) Princes who deliver hilarious performances that allude to not keeping your sword in it's scabbard! (Tom Elliot and Lewis Cook) to a scene stealing performance from David Stephens as the Wolf. 

Into the Woods is an incredibly witty and fascinating piece of theatre. There are moments you'll laugh aloud, moments you'll marvel at Sondheim's wit and other times he'll pull at your heart with emotion. Sondheim is difficult to get right, and is often difficult for audiences to get into, it takes a particular kind of production and a particular kind of understanding to get that. This production gets it. I could sense and hear around me audience members who don't know Sondheim marvelling at his wit and storytelling through this performance, and it was a beautiful thing to see. 

Into the Woods ends with the haunting refrain 'Children will Listen' the warning song to the audience, and a lament on Motherhood. Set against the backdrop of darkened trees outside, after three hours of Sondheim's magic worked by this hard working cast, it was a haunting lullaby into the night that lingered on much after. 

As a closing note, the world around us changed a bit last night while I watched this production- I heard the clock strive 10 marking the close of the EU Referendum vote and wondered what was next. None of us knows, but as ever the arts are likely to suffer. So as a close to this review I'd like to say to readers, please, please support arts in your commuity. Go out and see performances, get involved. Because the arts need all our support to continue. And of course you could do worse than starting with this or any of Cardif Open Air Theatre Festival of course!

All Photographs: David Holdsworth 

For more information and to book tickets online visit the Cardiff Open Air Theatre Festival website:
everymanfestival.co.uk or call the box office on 0333 6663366.

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Saturday, 18 June 2016

Romeo and Juliet-Taking Flight Theatre

Continuing the outdoor theatre theme from the last post, it's time for Taking Flight theatre's annual outdoor Shakespeare production. Starting in the lovely Thompson's Park in Cardiff and going on to some of Wales' most beautiful parks and castle grounds (oh and even one in Bristol this year!) the annual Taking Flight Shakespeare tour would be a delight simply for the backdrop, but there's much, much more magic involved. 

This year is the turn of the classic love story Romeo and Juliet, where the ill-fated lovers are given a 1960s twist. Set in Verona College (and Verona Ladies College) the warring Montagues and Capulets show their rivalry across the schools (and an annual boat race!). The performance moves around the outdoor space, the performers guiding the audience and often engaging with them, making everyone feel a part of this version of ‘Fair Verona’.

Everyone feeling a part of the production is key to Taking Flight’s ethos, an inclusive theatre company-in terms of both audience and performers. This means that D/deaf actors are a part of the performance, as well as disabled actors, and the performance is fully inclusive for the audience with both BSL interpretation and audio description. This isn't the kind of 'add on' inclusivity that audiences might expect, inclusivity is part of the performance. Audio description becomes a narrative device, with Georgia Periam and Ania Davies becoming ensemble characters and very much a part of the narrative while providing audio description. And while BSL interpreter Sami Thorpe provides simultaneous translation for scenes, she too is very much a part of the story. Meanwhile on stage Juliet and her Nurse (Stephanie Back and Roger Hudson) converse in BSL, while her Romeo (William Ross-Fawcett) attempts to learn in order to woo his Juliet. The inclusion of these accessibility elements brings out new elements of this familiar text and breathes new life into the story.

The school and 1960s backdrop makes for a youthful energetic backdrop to the story. Adapted so that music, movement, audio description and sign interpretation mingle seamlessly with Shakespeare’s original text. The adaptation is a credit to director Elise Davison and it is an energetic engaging version of the classic text. While the inventive use of the outdoor space and the wonderful costumes and design created by Rebecca Davis, transports an audience firmly back to 1963. The addition of musical accompaniment by the actors gives a real ‘Swinging 60s’ feel to the performance.

The actors embrace their roles with relish, from the comedic turns from Arthur Hughes and Sam Bees as Mercutio and Benvolio (not to mention Hughes' memorable turn as Lady Capulet) to Paul Henshall being suitably foreboding as Friar Lawrence and Lord Capulet. The ill-fated couple themselves bring a youthful innocence and enthusiasm to the role, and are completely believable as a smitten high school pair. There is also real sense of the actors working as a company, and this takes the audience into the world of the performance and along with the actors in what can be both a challenging environment and challenging text.

This version of Romeo and Juliet is inclusive in not only the additions made via BSL and audio description, but also in that it is a wonderful adaptation of Shakespeare’s text that everyone will not only understand but enjoy. What for other theatre companies are ‘additions’ for inclusivity are integral to the performance, and are what make this version so exciting, engaging and enjoyable. Taking Flight once again are re-imagining both what Shakespeare looks like and what inclusive theatre looks like.

Romeo and Juliet is a great introduction to Shakespeare for both young old (and anyone in between). If you’ve never seen an inclusive performance or inclusive theatre company I urge you to see this production and re-define what you think that could mean. Most importantly, if you want to see some great Shakespeare, performed by an exemplary company in some of the most beautiful venues in Wales (and Bristol!) this summer, Romeo and Juliet is the production to see.

For more information on Taking Flight and their work please visit:

Adults £14
Concessions £10
Children (under 16) £6
Families £34

Thu 16 – Sun 19 June Thompson’s Park, Cardiff             
Tue 21 June Caerphilly Castle     
Thu 23 – Sat 25 June Denbigh Castle                       
Sun 26 June Loggerheads Country Park
Wed 29 June Tintern Abbey                                                       
Thu 30 June Cyfarthfa Castle, Merthyr                                    
Wed 6 July Tretower Court                                         
Thu 7, Fri 8 & Sun 10 July Blaise Castle Estate, Bristol   Tickets for this venue can be purchased here: www.bristolshakespearefestival.org.uk
Fri 15 – Sat 16 July Valle Crucis Abbey, Llangollen              
Sun 17 July Rhuddlan Castle                       
Tue 19 July Cilgerran Castle                         
Wed 20 – Sat 23 July Stackpole, Nr Pembroke                    
Sun 24 July Hilton Court, H’west               
Tue 26 July Clyne Gardens, Swansea      
Thu 28 July Elan Valley   
Fri 29 July Kidwelly Castle
Mon 1 Aug Beechenhurst Lodge, Forest of Dean

Tickets can be bought via the Chapter website http://www.chapter.org/taking-flight-theatre-romeo-and-juliet 

Death of a Salesman- Young Vic

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